Your divorce is not your neighbor’s divorce. The experience is different for everyone, the timeline and its landmarks unique to you. Before you doubt yourself, your timeline and your way of encountering divorce, consider the following factors that make your experience different than anybody else’s.
1 – Prior Knowledge
Some divorces catch one partner completely by surprise (this was my own experience), providing no opportunity to come to acceptance before it’s over. Others come as a relief to both partners after a marriage that has been on life support for an extended period of time. And many fall somewhere in between, with one or both partners having a sense that the marriage was nearing its end.
The longer you have known that divorce was imminent, the more prepared you are when it finally arrives. It’s a pre-grieving, a letting go that begins before it’s gone. If you’re wondering why you or your ex seem to be moving on so quickly, perhaps it’s not because it’s fast, but because it’s been happening in the background.
For those that have been blindsided, shock is a common (and overwhelming) response. This is often followed by rage accompanied with strong feelings of rejection and confusion. This is a complicated grief, and one that often takes longer to resolve.
2 – Agreement
It’s always easier to accept something if you’re in agreement with it. If the divorce was largely a mutual decision, it tends to be an easier (although still difficult) transition. There’s a sense of working together, a feeling of mutual respect.
If, however, the choice was reached by one partner with little to no consensus from the other, the experience becomes much more difficult. The voice is silenced.
When facing an unwanted divorce, the first step is accepting the particular mathematics of marriage: it takes two to create a marriage yet only one has the power to destroy it. And that’s a difficult truth to swallow.
3 – Betrayal
Many divorces truly are “no fault,” the marriage dissolving through a divergence of goals or priorities. These ex spouses may be sad that the relationship is transitioning, but they often hold no ill will towards their former partners. This is an less complicated grief, sadness tinged with remorse.
When betrayal has occurred, an entirely new element has been introduced into the split. There’s a strong sense of, “How could you do this to me?” that is a slug to the gut. This is followed by a sudden and sharp decrease in self-confidence as a feeling of being replaced and replaceable settles in. Rage is thrown in with the grief like a red shirt in a load of white laundry, staining everything it touches. This is a messy heartbreak, and one that has more elements to untangle.
And even then, not all inequality is created equal. Some types add even more complexity to the painful mix.
4 – Age
The twenty-something that gets divorced feels isolated in their friend group where everyone else is just settling down. They may have trouble finding understanding friends to confide in and their current situation is in contrast to what everyone thinks they “should” be doing. On the other hand, it’s an age where starting over is not as daunting and there are most likely fewer encumbrances that bind them to their former spouses.
Most divorces occur when people are in their 30s and 40s, so you’ll have good company if you’re in that group. There may be some fear about getting back out there, but there are many people in the same boat, which will probably provide some comfort. The disentangling of lives becomes harder, with children and houses possibly thrown into the mix.
The “gray divorce” is on the uptick as more couples split near or into retirement. The children are often grown, but the impact on the family can still be significant. There may be increased anxiety about finances, especially if one partner stayed at home and has had no opportunity to amass their own savings. A divorce later in life can also be associated with a greater sense of loneliness, although the increasing numbers of newly-single in this age group are helping to mitigate that effect.
5 – Children
When there are children from the marriage, their well-being is often at the forefront. As a result, the parent’s own healing may be sublimated for a time or may be ignored completely. This concern can also coexist with a sense of guilt for the impact on the child(ren).
A new (and hopefully healthy) co-parenting relationship has to be established, pushing away old pains and finding new boundaries and ways of interacting. This process may take months or even years, keeping the divorce “fresh” and making it more difficult to move forward.
Divorcing without children means that you can effectively cut your ex out of your life and that you don’t have to renegotiate a treaty with them. However, divorcing without kids also has its own set of struggles. After all, children mean that you still have your family, just in a diminished capacity. But when your spouse is your family, you’re left with nothing.
6 – Ex’s Behaviors
In a perfect world, you could divorce someone who is behaving badly and never have to deal with their nonsense again. But, at least in the case of family law, it’s not a perfect world. Some former spouses see the court system as their time on the Jerry Springer stage, as though their job is to bring as much drama and conflict as possible. Others stonewall, refusing to comply on even the smallest request. And if you have to co-parent with that misbehaving ex? The frustration continues.
Other people married somebody who remained decent even after the marriage ended. They may still use their ex as their emergency contact. Perhaps they engage in companionate conversation before their child’s recital. And maybe they’re even friends.
7 – Financial Situation
There’s a panic that takes hold when you don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent for the month or how your going to afford your child’s hospital bills. It’s hard to see the good in your life when you can’t even see over the stack of bills. And when there’s a sense of unfairness about the financial situation, such as with financial infidelity or when one parent dedicated their time to child-rearing, the anger rises fast and furious. And this indignation will mostly likely last until you’ve found your financial independence again.
If, on the other hand, your financial footing is still firm, you may have less fear. Less anger because you still have the freedom that comes with money in the bank. You can afford the help and the resources that can make the process a little easier. A little faster. It’s not everything, but it’s a little room to breathe.
8 – New Partners
When new partners move into the picture soon after (or even before) the divorce, it complicates the situation. Nobody likes to feel like they’re unimportant and replaceable and seeing your ex with someone new (especially if they’re getting married) brings exactly those emotions. If there are children, the relationships become exponentially more difficult as parents and step-parents try to ascertain their individual roles.
If you’re the one moving on, it’s easy to focus on your new partner and ignore any residual healing left over from the demise of the marriage. And your new partner may prompt feelings of insecurity and challenge in your ex, changing any interactions you have.
9 – Past Experiences
We are all the sum of our pasts. And divorce has a penetrating way of digging into those pasts and triggering old wounds, whatever they be. I responded strongly to abandonment and relived old childhood experiences. Others may hear the voice of a parent telling them they’ll never be good enough. Some feel like they have to be the peacekeepers. Or the fixers. Or the keep-the-smile-on-no-matter-what person.
Your reaction (or even overreaction) to your divorce is only partly because of your divorce. The rest comes from your individual part. It’s hard. It hurts when you feel like you can’t possibly hurt anymore. But it’s also an opportunity to address those old wounds, to clean and bandage them and let them heal completely.
10 – Coping Strategies
If you had healthy coping strategies in play before the divorce, they will most likely remain throughout the breakup. But not everybody enters into divorce with their personal and emotional toolkit well stocked. If you never faced adversity, you may find yourself completely overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed. Before you begin to move forward, you first have the task of learning yourself and what strategies work for you.
If you developed unhealthy habits prior to the divorce, they will most likely increase in intensity. Some of the most common are avoidance tactics – television, gaming, alcohol or drug use, overeating, etc. If you are prone to addictive behaviors, there will be an added element of difficulty for you as you navigate through the divorce.
11 – Duration of Marriage
If the marriage died in its infancy, you may be mourning the marriage you hoped for. With less time to build animosity and resentment, you might find yourself questioning the decision to split, wondering what if you had just tried a little harder. Shorter marriages are often accompanied with a sense of embarrassment or regret, hiding the knowledge that something about the relationship never did feel quite right.
Longer marriages bring the difficulty of separating out two intertwined threads without cutting either too short. There are years, even decades, of shared memories and experiences. Memories that can never be replaced and are lost on the funeral pyre of the marriage. In some ways, you’re losing more. In other ways, you have comfort in knowing you had it for a time.
12 – Personality Traits
Divorce takes your normal way of relating to the world and amplifies it. If you’re normal an introvert, it can morph you into a full-on recluse. If you are prone to anxiety, it can turn your days and nights into a never-ending panic attack. And if you are easily angered? Watch out, world.
Every single one of us has our personal set of struggles. Those traits we get better at dealing with but that we never fully conquer. Those attributes are like the window through which we see the world. And no two windows are the same.
13 – Concurrent Events
Divorce does not occur in a vacuum. Sometimes it has the diplomacy to wait until a relatively calm period to appear, but often it seems to follow closely on the heels or arrive just in front of some other major life event. Even the positive ones.
Divorce is associated with the birth or death a of child, the acquisition or loss of a new job, the struggle of infertility, the construction or foreclosure of a home, the achievement of a new degree and even with the diagnosis of a life-changing illness.
When divorce has company vying for the “Most Stressful Life Event” category, things get real difficult real fast.
14 – Spiritual Beliefs
Many people find great comfort in their belief that there is a greater plan or that everything happens for a reason. When divorce is framed in these terms, it becomes less of an ending and more of a transition.
A sense of faith, whatever that means to you, can be a great comfort through divorce as you believe that now is not always and that you will find happiness again. Instead of waiting to see it to believe it, you believe it and then look for it.
15 – Growth Mindset
At its heart, a growth mindset accepts and embraces struggle. It says that we grow stronger by climbing hills and that we only stop growing when we give up. A growth mindset doesn’t see a “failed marriage,” it sees a learning opportunity, albeit a painful one.
For people with a more fixed mindset, failure is internalized and personalized. They may have more trouble letting go of the leftover pain and may be more apt to describe themselves as stuck. The good news? A growth mindset can be learned.
16 – Guilt and Shame
For some people, the predominate emotion following divorce is guilt or shame. Sometimes this follows from their decision to behave unfaithfully. Other times it comes from a sense of failure or of not doing enough.
Both of these emotions are tricksters, telling you that you’re not okay. That you should remain hidden and that no one will accept you as you are. They both feed on that insecurity, grow in the dark. Guilt and shame don’t just hold you back, they hold you down.
17 – Sense of Control
Those that have an easier time after divorce feel as though they have some control over their lives. During and after divorce, there is much in flux that we cannot influence. There is also much that we do have some jurisdiction over.
Some focus on what they cannot sway – the judge, their ex, their income – and feel as through they’re caught in a punishing storm. Others set their sights on what they can influence – their perspective, their reactions, their choices – and concentrate on sailing through the storm.
18 – Emotional Intelligence
I used to laugh when my counselor mom talked about emotional intelligence (E.Q.). But it really is a thing. A thing that can be quite helpful when navigating divorce. The more you know yourself, the better you’ll understand and respond to your own reactions. And the more you can empathize and read between your ex’s actions, the less you’ll take things personally. And a little detachment goes a long way.
19 – Beliefs About Divorce
I never believed that divorce could happen to me. So when it did, I was forced to reconsider my views. I realized that I had confused desire with belief, as though my wishes were some sort of powerful conjurer. I saw divorce as a giving up. I was forced to give up that idea.
Others have been taught that divorce is a sin, something to never consider even when their safety is at stake. For them, divorce goes beyond a sense of failure, it becomes a source of evil.
Still others find an acceptance of divorce even before they experience it. They see it as an alternate path, a choice and nothing more.
20 – Expectations
If you believe divorce is the worst thing that could ever happen to you, it will be.
If you see divorce as a permanent failure, it will fulfill that inclination.
If you perceive that there is a “right” way to do divorce, you’ll always be comparing.
If you view divorce as a chapter in your life, you’ll move on to write the next one.
And if you accept divorce as your own personal experience, you’ll learn from it in your own way.